Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Complete Unknown: Bob Dylan and Literature in Song

Before there was Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate and songwriter for an age, there were cultures whose entire literature was composed and delivered anonymously in song. For the Anglo-Saxons, the giedd--the 'song', 'utterance', 'poem', 'riddle'--was how a story was told. Rich, melodic, alliterative verse was intoned or sung to the accompaniment of the harp or lyre, phrases and images formed out of the deep wordhoard of the poet-singer.

King David composes the psalms from the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon Vespasian Psalter

Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History, tells the story of the famous seventh-century Northumbrian cowherd, Cædmon, who was asked to sing to the accompaniment of a harp at a feast. Ashamed that the couldn't join in, he left the table, and was visited that night in a dream by an angel who asked him to sing something:  "Cedmon, sing me hwæthwugu." Þa ondswarede he ond cwæð: "Ne con Ic noht singan; ond Ic for þon of þeossum gebeorscipe ut eode, ond hider gewat, for þon Ic naht singan ne cuðe." ("Cædmon, sing me something". Then Cædmon answered and said: "I can't sing at all; and because of that I came away from the beer-party, and came here, because I'm not able to sing.") Through the angel's miraculous intervention, Cædmon awoke and found himself able to sing a glorious song of the creation that brought him fame far and wide. The poem of the Creation, Cædmon's Hymn, is one of the most widely taught poems in medieval literature courses, and is considered to be the earliest surviving English poem.

Reconstruction of Anglo-Saxon lyre

In Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems, not only are the composition and performance of poetic song shown to be coveted skills, but the very poems themselves represent the creative product of these artists. In many cultures, the most revered form of literature is balladic, melodic or harmonious songcraft, and for the Welsh, as for many others, to be able to sing is the highest form of praise: Canu'r dydd a chanu'r nos ("Sing in the day and sing in the night", the hymn Calon Lân says). And just as that most famous of Welsh bards--Dylan Thomas--honoured "Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight", so we can honour his namesake, Bob Dylan, and his magnificent literary achievement through song in this long, long tradition of musical verse.

Today's headline from The Guardian


  1. Lovely. Thank you for sharing your insights!

  2. Song is the cradle literature of the world and in our times, never have we been farther away from its healing beauty. Dylan is indeed a Caedmon at this millennium and never have we needed it more. The Nobel Committee decision is a brilliant comforting healing one for us.